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Quick pay fix won't work

Peter Smith is not impressed by plans for a new breed of superteacher. The idea has been tried before and failed before, and the lessons are clear enough for even the Treasury to recognise them.

IN THE past 25 years virtually every attempt to increase the proportion of the pay bill going to classroom teachers - as against those who manage them - has foundered.

The senior teacher grade of the 1970s was intended to reward those mainly older staff who had made the classroom their career. It didn't work. In expanding secondary schools, senior teachers were appointed to take the strain off heads and deputies. To the dismay of the old sweats who thought their time had come, a new breed of young thrusters emerged instead. Often paid more to teach less, they were junior managers rather than senior teachers. In the primary sector senior teachers were virtually unknown.

Years later Kenneth Baker, skilfully exploiting the unpopularity teachers had gained from a bitter and protracted dispute, reformed the pay structure. For the first time he listed teachers' duties, specified the time their heads could direct them to work and defined the working year.

Incentive allowances replaced five incremental scales. The impact was counter-productive. A huge number of supposedly new allowances were consumed by the assimilation process and safeguarding. The problem was particularly acute in primary schools, where heads often felt the only fair way of distributing inadequate funding was to pay staff in rotation - a sort of management game of Pass the Parcel. A short basic scale with a range of spot payments also meant that most teachers saw their pay peak at a very early stage in their careers.

The structure did not produce the new culture Baker wanted. He tried to encourage teachers to perform better by wielding a conditions of service stick and tangling a string of puny pay carrots. It backfired. Managers continued to reward teachers who assumed additional responsibility, rather than try to make invidious and subjective judgments about individual performance. The later introduction of "excellence points" predictably bombed for the same reason. To stroke the fur in the wrong direction, and to go on doing so, was foolishness with intent.

Introducing a menu of required duties, none of them individually unreasonable, had two effects. It meant the disappearance of a wide range of extra-curricular activities which teachers had previously carried out voluntarily. It also created an environment in which managers could "justify" imposing unreasonable workloads - often without realising just how unreasonable the workloads were. And sometimes they felt that if they were to avoid the chief inspector's displeasure and survive in the education marketplace, they had no real alternative.

It is against this history that we need to assess which changes will prove motorways to the millennium and which will be fin de si cle dead ends.

No one can mistake the political determination to introduce advanced skills teachers. To suggest that identifying a very small number of "superteachers" will make teaching a more attractive career to graduate refuseniks is absurd. To couple them to education action zones with statutory sell-by dates is even odder.

The ambiguity over whether being a superteacher is a qualification or a pay grade is less evidence of a craving for exciting experiment than proof of failure to think the thing through - or simple dithering.

Something more radical and durable is called for. Could it be that the Local Government Association's Graham Lane, and Margaret Hodge, who chairs the parliamentary education and employment select committee, have simultaneously and by sheer coincidence hit on it? Extend the working week, lengthen the school year and give teachers a hefty pay rise. Eureka! Standards will soar, and the only risk is a mid-air collision with rocket-fuelled teacher morale.

Or perhaps not. The history of the past 25 years has not been erased by the election of a not-so-New Labour. The lessons are clear.

The first is this. The most powerful determinant of an individual teacher's pay is not qualification, classroom effectiveness or management responsibility. It is something we are so accustomed to that we take it for granted - the size of the institution in which she or he teaches. (And the order of the personal pronouns is not mere political correctness, but a reflection of the gender balance within the teacher work force.) Unless we find a way to uncouple individual pay and school size, any attempt to link pay to performance, or even to competence, will fail.

The second is that the Government is right about standards mattering more than structures - even in an area to which it has not so far applied the dictum. Without the durable funding which makes pay reward a strategic element in staff development, no pay structure is better than any other. If there's only a pint of petrol in the engine, then a Rolls-Royce has little advantage over a Lada. If you search long and hard for a human resources strategy in the Department for Education and Employment's thinking, you will search in vain. Governments may change, but Treasury short-termism rules OK.

As for proposed alterations to the length and shape of the school year, those promoting change have a point. The 19th-century agrarian need for cheap hop- pickers and spud-grubbers had far more influence on education than Piaget. But is there any evidence that the much-vaunted success of our international comparators correlates with the patterns of their school years? Or could it just be that they treat their teachers differently? And if they do, what's the secret?

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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